by R. F. Kuang
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 21, 2023
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This is completely different than anything else Rebecca has written. In the Ackowledgments, she says it is, in large part, a horror story, and yet not in the way that would make it speculative fiction. There were a couple of times I thought it might turn into a ghost story, but no, it is realistic, contemporary fiction, set in the fiercely competitive publishing industry of just a few years past. From a certain perspective, it could also be considered a thriller, which I am sure would be the emphasis if it ever gets a filmed adaptation. All of the main characters are fictional, although there are mentions of real people and real books, as well as TV and films. Written in first-person, the narrator is June Hayward, a 27-year-old white woman whose debut novel went nowhere, who has to contend with the massive success of a college friend, Athena Liu. They had been close for a while at Yale, then drifted apart after graduation, June working various teaching assignments and internships. Athena had sold her first novel while still at Yale, and the success continued. June later learns of a time Athena had dismissed their friendship, avoiding her at a book convention. She wonders why Athena wanted to reconnect when they both ended up in the DC area.
I'll say at the outset there are a couple of things that aren't exactly logical, but the story they set up is worth it. Athena invites June to help celebrate one of her books getting a Netflix adaptation. Not only is June the only one she invited, they are the only two women in the bar where the celebration starts, then they go back to Athena's luxurious apartment. Both drink too much, then Athena gets the idea of making her famous pandan pancakes. She chokes on one, with June administering the Heimlich to no avail, the same when Athena tries to self-administer across the back of a chair. Athena is dead by the time EMTs arrive. June is in shock, but not so much she forgets to take something of Athena's, a printed manuscript of what was to be her next novel. June considered the finished book as much her work as Athena's, since what she started with was just a draft, she did a lot of her own research, and many pages were excised or completely rewritten. June knows what she did was wrong, but also knowing Athena's usual method, she thinks no one else knew what she was working on. Athena typed up her work on an old manual typewriter, not a computer or word processor, with no backup files. While I enjoyed this book a lot, I really would like to read The Last Front, which is about an historical event I was previously unaware of, the Chinese Labour Corps that served the Allies during World War 1.
The term yellowface is equivalent to blackface, when a white person impersonates someone of a different race. It wasn't June's idea, but the publishers felt it best for her to rebrand because of her first book's poor performance. June's mother had been a bit bohemian in her youth, giving her daughters unique names. Her older sister is Rory, her full name being Whisper Aurora. June is Juniper Song Hayward, but the publisher thinks it best for her book to be as by Juniper Song. Considering the subject of the novel, it leads many to assume the author is Chinese, resulting in some awkward reactions in interviews. The yellowface accusation comes later, but June's life starts to unravel when at her first major book tour appearance, she sees Athena in the audience, or at least someone she thinks is Athena. Could she have faked her death, paying off the EMTs to confirm it? And if so, why? Was she already tired of being publishing's latest darling? Then @AthenaLiusGhost starts spreading the plagiarism rumors on Twitter, and as happens in the real world, many others like and retweet the accusations, and the trolling and death threats begin. June continually maintains the book is hers, to her publisher, editor, and agent, but the taunts continue. She finally discovers who is behind that Twitter handle, confronts him, and again stands firm on her innocence. However, she still occasionally sees 'Athena' stalking her.
Things settle down after a while, as most online scandals do, but it is not the end, as Athena's Instagram becomes active again, the first time since the morning of the day she died, and all of the posts are Athena taunting June, saying everyone will soon know the truth. June had already started her own memoir about the ordeal, hoping her version would make sense to others, or at least to those most likely to buy her next book. Rebecca doesn't say if she has ever experienced such a rivalry, but it is likely she knows of others who have. The publishing world is still mostly controlled by whites, and I'm sure the statements like "We already have an Asian author (or a Muslim author), we don't have room for others," have been made, and perhaps even in front of that Asian or Muslim person. June had been jealous of Athena's success, and felt like a lot of whites do, that the marginalized get too many opportunities, when anyone with any sense knows it's the exact opposite. One of the better things about the book is there were multiple times I actually started feeling sorry for June, which is a testament to Kuang's writing ability, or to my gullibility, or both.
In the real world right now we have TV and film writers on strike, with many of the public thinking they are spoiled, rich elitists who should be grateful for whatever the producers are willing to give them. There have also been many revelations about the vagaries of publishing, including the difficulty of marginalized voices getting recognition, and the limiting of the number of those voices at any given publishing house. The subject of this book might be why I didn't see a lot of promotion for it, and it's possible there were several awkward exchanges between Rebecca and her editor and publisher, although she claims she has had a lot of support from them from the beginning of her career. However, I won't be surprised if her next book comes from another company. While I am slightly disappointed this didn't turn out to be a ghost story, I still enjoyed it a lot, and recommend it. And I look forward to whatever Rebecca writes in the future.
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